Buying The Groceries

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Coaching is a rough gig. Especially when your successor wins about a million Super Bowls. Image via Yahoo Sports.

Back a million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still talked about sports for a living, the New England Patriots parted ways with their coach, Bill Parcells, after the team made a Super Bowl appearance. He was not super-pleased. In fact, he had a parting shot:

“If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”

I get what he’s saying: if you are holding me accountable for the performance of 53 guys, I should get to pick which guys they are. Well, teachers don’t get to pick. But in the right place, they get to pick how they teach. In one of my first conversations with my new department chair (now a district-level administrator) when I hired on, I found out that our department was moving in the direction of classroom -level autonomy. The state decides what you have to teach, yeah, but you get to decide how to do it.

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I’m a Stuck-In-The-80s loser. Sue me.

 

Use a textbook? Fine. Ditch the textbook? That’s cool too. All about Three-Act Math and Desmos Activities and WODB? You do you.

We do a lot of planning as content teams. Our main focus during this school year is detracking. Instead of offering three ability-grouped sections, there will be “Honors Algebra II”, and just-plain “Algebra II” next year. Those are the options, kid. So we’re spending a lot of time figuring how to support our struggling learners in a faster-paced environment.


Now, they’re not coming around tomorrow to make a movie. Nobody here is doing anything earth-shattering and disruptive, but it is obviously cool to have the freedom to teach in your own style.  Occasionally, monumentally cool things happen. Sometimes, it’s a smaller victory. In classic “happy accident” style, I may have stumbled across something cool this week, in terms of the order in which material is presented for maximum learning.

We’re in the midst of a (short) trig unit. Right angle trig, sine and cosine graphs, that’s about it. “Coterminal angles” and “Functions of any angle” gets a drive-by. Law of Sines and Law of Cosines get pushed back to Pre-Cal. There’s probably more emphasis on graphing. But: What if the order flip-flopped? Graph first, then tackle coterminal angles and the general definition of the functions?

Maybe with a Desmos activity?

Yeah, let’s do that.

I feel like I’ve got to lay a pretty good foundation with the graphs. Maybe, emphasize that the graph is periodical and hits the same value multiple times. I think the visual will help my students grasp the concept that there is a sine & cosine value for all of those degree measures, then we can go from there.

My 2nd hour wasn’t having it:

 

 

My 5th hour response: marginally better. Then I was out Thursday for an all-day curriculum planning meeting (coincidentally). So we’ll see. If the periodic nature of the sin/cos functions take root, I’ve set the table for Friday beautifully.


 

We quickly recapped the sin/cos graph assignment Friday at the outset of class, pointing out again how the graph of the function repeats. I’m guardedly optimistic. Let’s roll with Desmos, huh? We started with a card sort of definitions – letting the students do some word root detective work.

Desmos Trig 1

They had some mild success at matching words, images, and definitions, and we took a couple of minutes to make sure we were speaking the same language.

 

(H/T to some of my online PLN friends who helped me tweak this activity. Protip: when smart people give you advice, take it.)

After a couple more screens where we pondered the cyclical nature of the graphs, it’s time to get to the meat and potatoes.

Desmos Trig 3

Good news: pretty much everybody could sketch a 135 degree angle. Also good news: most could recall the ratios for sine and cosine. So let’s push the ball upfield. Here’s how to calculate the ratio of any angle. Go.

Desmos Trig 4

We ran out of time before we could dive deep into the idea of positive and negative values for the functions.

Ironically, this activity connected much better with my 2nd hour than with my 5th.

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But what can I say? Friday afternoon, after lunch, sun shining thru my windows….

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Hey, I recognize that guy…

At least some of them let their creativity shine thru as well.


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So, did this little tweak in the order of sections pay off? Not in a fireworks/shooting stars kind of way. I think the visual of the animated unit circle/sine graph was huge. And I think the Desmos activity was an improvement over me standing there and dishing out notes and giving a written assignment.

The bigger story is the freedom to re-arrange things in such a way that it benefits my students. Writ large, my Alg II planning group met last week to ponder some options for next year, including SBG, but we also took a hard look at the course from a power standards standpoint. We front-loaded the course with Alg II standards, pushed the trig section back to the end of the year, and flip-flopped a couple of units to get balance between 3rd and 4th quarter. Standards-Based Grading has some folks curious, and is being strongly encouraged, but individual teachers have the option whether to implement it.

Sounds to me like as seasoned chefs, a lot of us will be buying our own groceries next year. I feel a little bit like Bobby Flay already.

Bobby Flay
Image via Food Network
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Seeing Things

Choir Kids
Rehearsal before Mass on Sunday at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, founded 1848.

This weekend I had a chance to chaperone a junior choir trip to perform in Detroit.

Despite living an afternoon’s drive away for my entire life, it was my first time visiting this classic American city. Driving in on 94 we passed the Ford Rouge Complex from a distance. (They don’t call it Motown for nothing, right?) My dad worked at Inland Steel for 40 years so I’ve kinda got a thing for down-and-out midwestern manufacturing cities. Looking out over the stacks of the factory complex, deep down inside me, riding in a 15-passenger rental van, I could viscerally feel what Detroit meant to the world not that long ago.

Rouge Overview
A tiny sliver of the 2-million square foot Rouge Complex.

 

We build in educational & sightseeing opportunities on these trips so Saturday we had tickets to the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum.

Hitsville USA
Hitsville, USA – The Empire on West Grand

The Motown and Ford origin stories have been told a million times but we were traveling with 13-17 year olds who don’t have a solid personal grasp of that history.

For their surface-level differences, there was a common thread. Sitting at the hotel breakfast on Sunday morning, the dads who were chaperoning the trip spent time connecting the dots. Henry Ford & Berry Gordy are two men etched deeply into the fabric of the American 20th century. Visionaries, really. To the point where we speak of “Fordism” and “the Motown sound”, and build museums to celebrate them.

  • They’re both from Detroit 
  • Both refined raw materials into finished product
  • Both found new ways around the Gatekeeper 
  • They were in the right place at the right time: “the kids were ready”
  • Both marketed aspirations of better things
  • Both made changes with the times

The visits, and the stories we heard and the things we saw made an important time “real” for our kids. And they learned social lessons that apply even today. 

From a school standpoint I’m hopeful that our kids recognized that the world needs people who can recognize where improvements can be made (or revolutions started), and then use their unique skills to make the change happen. Their job over the next few years is to identify their “thing”, and then prepare themselves to see where their unique skill applies to solve (as the Rigor & Relevance people say) real-world, unpredictable situations.


One last thing our kids learned: A lesson that hit deeper than any book, lecture, or video could:

The Rouge Complex tour started with a video on the history of Ford Motor Company. It pulled no punches on Henry Ford. Our kids saw the photos of labor organizers being beaten by Ford security outside the Rouge plant in 1937.

Later on, after the plant tour, we had about an hour left before the museum closed. That meant we needed to prioritize our visit. Taking my son aside, we made a beeline for the “With Liberty And Justice For All” exhibit. We sat on the bus where Rosa Parks made her stand. A vehicle that the Henry Ford Museum spent $750k to purchase and restore.

Rosa Parks Bus

Every stereotype you have about middle school kids is true, to a point. They are definitely free-range kids. Getting seven of them together and focused on the same thing is a, uh, challenge.

But you should have seen these kids during the presentation on the bus. They were dialed in on the museum employee who gave them the background on the situation in the south in the 50s. They hung on every word of an audio interview with Rosa Parks, relating her story. “I guess I needed to find out what my rights were, exactly, as a human being.” One of the things that middle-school kids understand at a deep level is a recognition of when other people are being treated unfairly. They got it.

Rules of Engagement

I have no doubt they learned what they needed to learn on Saturday afternoon. And it happened because they got to see things they’re never seen before. They sat where Rosa Parks sat, stood where David Ruffin stood, walked past the candy machine where a young Stevie Wonder bought Baby Ruth bars with spare change, sang in a 170-year-old building, and felt the pulse of a city.

There’s a lesson in there for me as a teacher, too.

Studio A
Studio A. The 24/7 operation where the Motown magic happened.

Desmos Art 2.0

One of the hallmarks of the MTBoS is constant refinement and reflection – taking something of your own or someone else’s and making it better.

The conics unit has come and gone in my Algebra II classes, and like last year I want to do a performance assessment. Back in the day this assessment was Amy Gruen’s piecewise functions picture. With the advent of Desmos it’s now a digital version of the same project. (I wrote about last year’s here). Then in early summer I saw the tweet that let me know how much better my project could be for my students.

Dropping the image into Desmos first, then creating the equations to match the image? Brilliant! That led to a pretty productive online conversation, and to me making some slight changes to my plan for this year. My big takeaways from last year were:

  1. my students selected some very cool but also very challenging pictures to duplicate
  2. they needed massive amounts of support writing equations to match lines and curves
  3. probably not everybody did their own work

Providing massive amounts of support is what Desmos does best. That scaffolding probably means less frustration, and less cheating. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Fingers crossed
Via Tenor

Started before break with a functions review (Alg II (3) Functions one-pager), not only of conics but of all the functions we’ve learned this year. The day back from spring break we learned how to match equations with lines or shapes in a picture with this Desmos activity.

Then I introduced the project, and offered a carrot (it’s a quiz grade, you guys!). And away they went, seeking pictures.

 

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They found standard-issue high-school-kid stuff: lots of cartoon characters, superhero or sports team logos, palm trees and flowers. I had them make a (rough) sketch of the image on grid paper, then try to identify equations of four functions that would be included in the final product. I wanted them to get used to the idea of seeing small sections of the larger whole, and finding ways to describe that section in math symbols. We also walked through the process of setting up an account in Desmos, opening a new graph and bringing in the image, and saving the graph so they could access it again.

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Making ’em hungry before lunch. Double Double, coming up.

By Day Two, we were ready to start getting serious about making some math art.


 

They were pretty excited about this project when they were googling around for images, finding their favorite characters or sports teams. They were less excited about this project when it came time to start writing equations.

A couple wanted to straight-up quit. I’m gonna use all my powers of persuasion to try to convince them otherwise. That, plus walking through the process, step by-step, of writing a general equation, then adding sliders and tweaking values until the curve matched up. I’m not sure it helped.

I did notice that very few of my students actually completed the reference sheet. And (in a related story) almost none had any recall of any function equations except y = mx + b. That is definitely part of the issue – a huge disconnect between a shape on a screen and the math symbols that represent it. And truth be told, that’s part of what I wanted this assignment to do – to cement that relationship.

Best-laid plans, right? I’ve got some work to do.

showtime


 

The morning of Day Three, the putative due date, one of my struggling students came in for extra help on the project. She left with a smile on her face, having made serious progress. Plus she agreed to act as a “resident expert” in class, helping out her tablemates when they got stuck. We made some halting progress as a class, but no one is close to done. Several of my students did say that they understood how to write an equation for a line or curve, and restrict the domain, just that it was going to take a long time and a lot of tedious work. So, similar to last year, with about 10 minutes left in class I offered a reprieve, shifting the due date to Monday. Then I’ll accept whatever they have and go from there. I set up the grading rubric in such a way that the points are weighted toward planning and less on the finished product, so the kids who laid down a foundation can still get a reasonable grade even if their final product is…. incomplete.

But I also want to be able to show them what their project could look like, with a little bit of persistence:

 

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Just a little something I threw together over the weekend. 44 equations later…


 

The breakthrough for many came when they started to use vertex or intercept form for their parabolas. The ones who completed the functions reference sheet caught that first. I showed everyone on Monday, which of course was too late for many folks. Next year I’ll highlight that option earlier.

So, they begrudgingly turned in their paper/pencil planning work, along with a link to their Desmos creation, on Monday. Just like last year, some bit off way more than they could chew. Some got frustrated and quit. Some gave me a half-finished product. But the ones who stuck with it were able to turn in some pretty cool stuff:

 

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Oh, yeah, and this from a student as she turned in the assignment thru Canvas:

Desmos Student Comment
Yeah….

My big takeaways:

  1. I need to steer them towards reasonable images to duplicate. Avoid frustration and shutdown right from the jump.
  2. I need to encourage my students to use the vertex form of quadratics. Anything that makes the movement of the curve more intuitive is good. I think eventually that will help cement translation of functions.
  3. I need to enforce the preparation steps that I built in: the reference sheet, the paper sketch, and the four function equations by hand. I need to help them draw the connection between curves on a screen and the associated math symbols.

The assignment is is a keeper. But I bet you it won’t look exactly the same three years from now as it did this week. In fact, I’m counting on it.

When The River Runs Dry

Donna And Buzz
Conceived Without Sin, Bud MacFarlane Jr., St. Jude Media.

“… he with blind faith, feeling nothing; she with visionary faith, feeling everything.”

For me it’s both. Sometimes in the same week.

I started Holy Week at my parish’s 24-Hour Prayer Vigil. I selected an intention card submitted by a parishioner who attends our Spanish-language Mass. The intentions were universal tho: Peace for the world, and prayers for the kids in the family, especially that they would find the faith.

I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. Meditating on the events of the Passion. It hit the depths of my soul. I was as emotionally engaged in prayer as I have been in a long time. Adoration has that effect on me in general, but this was unusually strong.

Later in the week I took my youngest son to Notre Dame for an afternoon. We’re not alums, or even subway alums, but when you grow up in Catholic schools with nuns for teachers and the most famous Catholic university on the planet an hour away, that “thing” for Our Lady’s university never really goes away. It was a popular choice for dads and kids during spring break I guess, since we were far from the only family wandering around campus, snapping photos of the Golden Dome and the Hesburgh Library.

 

What I really wanted to see for myself tho was Sacred Heart Basilica and the Grotto. We walked through the heavy wooden doors of the beautiful church, selected a pew, let the organ music settle over us, knelt, and began to pray together.

And I was dry. Couldn’t feel a thing. Same story at the Grotto. I’ve literally waited my entire life to kneel there and light a candle and pray an Ave, and… nothing.

Doesn’t mean the prayers aren’t useful. Don’t believe me, take the words of a saint instead:

“In you, today, he wants to relive his complete submission to his Father,” she wrote in 1974 to a priest suffering his own spiritual blackness.  “It does not matter what you feel, but what he feels in you . . . You and I must let him live in us and through us in the world.”

David Scott: “Mother Teresa’s Long Dark Night“, chapter 17 in The Love That Made Mother Teresa (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2013): 107-113

“Through us in the world.” Hmmm.

 


 

I feel that dryness with Twitter right now. I kind of live in three worlds there: I follow a lot of sports stuff, and a lot of political/news stuff in addition to all my teacher connects. There’s some overlap, of course. Some of it lifts me up right now. The Notre Dame women winning the NCAA basketball championship, for example.

Or an epic thread of priests and lay folks pondering the Easter Vigil. (Seriously, click through and read it. All of it. This nonsense I’m writing will still be here when you get back.)

But the Teacher Twitter stuff…. I’m scrolling right by lately. I glance, maybe. I go, “oh, yeah”, and then I move on. Or worse, I read it and go “ugh”. Truthfully, there’s a lot of stupidity out there in the Twitterverse. None of this is new by the way, just seems to be weighing on me with a little more force these days. People treat each other like crap. Political divisions are leading to derangement. Plus, unoriginal putdowns spread like dandelions. I enjoy a little snark as much as the next guy but everything is only so funny after the 100th time you read it. All of that led me to declare a one-day social media fast for myself on Good Friday. (That is a link to the past as well: tradition amongst my group growing up was all TV and radio was silenced from noon until 3 pm on Good Friday. Not a bad habit to revive, I think.)

I’m getting ready to present at a couple of Summer of E-Learning conferences in June. That has me focused. My two regular chats are always a learning experience. Those things energize me. But mild social media addiction aside, sometimes I feel like I could take or leave the rest of it.

Maybe it’s just the lull of Spring Break, getting mentally ready for the stretch run. (39 school days left, not that we’re counting or anything). Did my brain intentionally shut itself off to teacher stuff online, both to clear space for Holy Week observances, and to clear the mechanism for the fourth quarter? Maybe I’m supposed to be turning my attention outward, go “all-in” on my classes so that the world, my students in particular, can see what I’m really about.

I have the final quarter planned out. We’ve got some cool stuff coming up in Algebra II, for real. The last 9 weeks of the last required math course my students need to graduate can feel like a long march through a parched desert. I’m hoping for spring storms to hit and rush through a dry creek bed, turning everything green again.

 

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Me and Sam at The Narrows, Zion National Park, summer 2016. Splashing around in the Virgin River is a great payoff on a 107F afternoon.